Unimpeachable? Why Writers Cannot Count on the Constitution


Reading the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review, I dwelled longer than recommended on Andrew Sullivan’s review of two Trump-centric books: Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide by Cass R. Sunstein, and Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America, a collection of essays edited by the same man.

First things first: authoritarianism is bad news for everyone, save the powers-that-be and their toadies, but it is particularly dangerous for writers who dare consort with such dangerous accomplices as Truth and Criticism. And I mean writers of every stripe, from journalists to poets. And I mean artists of every stripe, from actors to painters to musicians, because authoritarians love to lump us all together and label us: “liberals,” “socialists,” “elitists.”

That last one is particularly amusing. I am about as elitist as an old truck. But if the powers-that-be label you and repeat their lies enough, their toadies in the swamp begin to sing the same song. The refrain? Any enemy of Trump’s is an enemy of the state’s.

Back to Andrew Sullivan’s article: If you’re looking for a cautionary tale on authoritarianism, Sullivan writes, you need go no further than Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is systematically turning that country’s democracy into permanent one-man rule.

Could it happen in the United States? As Trump begins to beat the drums (read: tweet the tweets) more and more about Robert Mueller the closer Mueller’s investigation leads back to Trump’s lair, the answer is increasingly becoming a foregone conclusion that no doubt will include Mueller’s firing. Here’s Sullivan in a key paragraph:

“The dismemberment of a public discourse centered on objective truth is a key first step, fomented by unceasing dissemination of outright lies from the very top, metabolized by tribal social media, ever more extreme talk radio and what is essentially a state propaganda channel, Fox News. The neutering of the courts is the second step — and Trump is well on his way to (constitutionally) establishing a federal judiciary whose most important feature will be reliable assent to executive power. Congress itself has far less approval than Trump; its inability to do anything but further bankrupt the country, enrich oligarchy and sabotage many Americans’ health care leaves an aching void filled by… a president who repeatedly insists that ‘I am the only one who matters’.”

Sullivan goes on to bemoan the fact that “the possibility of reasoned deliberation at the heart of democratic life has been obliterated by the white-hot racial and cultural hatreds that Trump was able to exploit to get elected and that he constantly fuels.”

Scarier still? Trump has not cornered the market on capitalizing on racial and cultural hatred. It is unfolding in other countries as well, all in an ominously 1930s kind of way.

Sullivan wraps up his book review with these profoundly disturbing words: “The Democrats find themselves in opposition a little like Marco Rubio in the primaries. Take the high road and you are irrelevant; take the low road and you cannot compete with the biggest bully and liar on the block. The result is that an unimpeachable president is slowly constructing the kind of authoritarian state that America was actually founded to overthrow.

“There is nothing in the Constitutions’s formal operation that can prevent this. Impeachment certainly cannot. As long as one major political party endorses it, and a solid plurality of Americans support such an authoritarian slide, it is unstoppable. The founders knew that without a virtuous citizenry, the Constitution was a mere piece of paper and, in Madison’s words, ‘no theoretical checks — no form of government can render us secure.’ Franklin was blunter in forecasting the moment we are now in: He believed that the American experiment in self-government ‘can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.’ You can impeach a president, but you can’t, alas, impeach the people. They voted for the kind of monarch the American republic was designed, above all else, to resist; and they have gotten one.”

As Sullivan sums up his words on Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America, he hints that the collected essayists have already come to a frightening conclusion regarding the titular question of the hour: Can it happen here? “If you read between the lines,” he writes, “‘it’ already has.”